Groundwater crisis, a serious warning

Karnataka’s Minor Irrigation Minister, T B Jayachandra’s statement in the Legislative Council regarding depleting groundwater levels in the state is reason for alarm. It appears that of the 177 taluks in the state, groundwater levels in 143 have depleted over the past decade. This is based on comparison of data between 2007 and 2016 of static groundwater levels in 1,774 borewells maintained by Karnataka’s Groundwater Directorate. Data reveals that the depletion was particularly severe in Kolar district, where water levels plummeted by almost 55% over a decade. Overexploitation of groundwater, increasing density of borewells, deforestation and successive years of droughts has pushed the state’s groundwater levels to new lows.

The rapidly falling levels are worrying for several reasons. For one, they signal declining availability of groundwater for human consumption, agriculture, etc. Besides, rivers, wetlands and lakes, which groundwater supports, are in danger of being destroyed as the levels fall. Importantly, groundwater at very low levels is highly toxic. Salts and arsenic are naturally found in groundwater but when their concentrations rise due to falling water levels, they cause diseases and even death. According to a recent study conducted by the Central Ground Water Board and Karnataka’s Groundwater Directorate, groundwater in 22 of the state’s 30 districts, including Bengaluru Urban and Bengaluru Rural, contained toxic salts above permissible limits.

Depleting groundwater levels cannot be ignored any longer. While the government has done well to impose restrictions on the planting of eucalyptus and acacia saplings that contribute to serious depletion of water tables, more robust steps are needed. A large amount of groundwater that is currently available is not fit for use as untreated sewage and industrial effluents are contaminating it. Add­ressing these issues and encouraging rainwater harvesting and methods that promote the judicious use of water would reduce the pressure. Halting the sinking of new bore-wells is essential. It is unfortunate that the Karnataka government, which had earlier imposed restrictions on new borewells, recently reversed that decision as the state could likely be staring at a severe water crisis in the coming months.

Excess drawing of water and the high density of borewells is the cause of the groundwater problem in Karnataka. While the decision to lift restrictions on new borewells may help the state tide over an immediate crisis, in the long run, this will spell disaster as more borewells mean greater depletion of water tables. The government must, therefore, rethink its decision. It must act against water mafias and builders who are aggressively sinking new borewells. Importantly, creating public awareness is a must. People must realise that drilling deeper will only bring up lethal cocktails, not safe drinking water.

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